The title of this post is a phrase from a recent essay by Vivian Gornick, "The cost of daydreaming," describing an experience that very much resonates with my own, and that I think is describing her discovery and way of noticing the distinction between our internal mind wandering (default mode) and present centered outwardly oriented (attentional) brain networks (the subject of many MindBlog posts). On finding that she could sense the start of daydreaming and suppress it:
...the really strange and interesting thing happened. A vast emptiness began to open up behind my eyes as I went about my daily business. The daydreaming, it seemed, had occupied more space than I’d ever imagined. It was as though a majority of my waking time had routinely been taken up with fantasizing, only a narrow portion of consciousness concentrated on the here and now...I began to realize what daydreaming had done for me — and to me.
Turning 60 was like being told I had six months to live. Overnight, retreating into the refuge of a fantasized tomorrow became a thing of the past. Now there was only the immensity of the vacated present...It wasn’t hard to cut short the daydreaming, but how exactly did one manage to occupy the present when for so many years one hadn’t?"Then, after a period of time:
...I became aware, after a street encounter, that the vacancy within was stirring with movement. A week later another encounter left me feeling curiously enlivened. It was the third one that did it. A hilarious exchange had taken place between me and a pizza deliveryman, and sentences from it now started repeating themselves in my head as I walked on, making me laugh each time anew, and each time with yet deeper satisfaction. Energy — coarse and rich — began to swell inside the cavity of my chest. Time quickened, the air glowed, the colors of the day grew vivid; my mouth felt fresh. A surprising tenderness pressed against my heart with such strength it seemed very nearly like joy; and with unexpected sharpness I became alert not to the meaning but to the astonishment of human existence. It was there on the street, I realized, that I was filling my skin, occupying the present.
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